A Waiting Game: Exploring the Hall of Fame Merits of Catching Legend Mike Piazza

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They say patience is a virtue, and that all good things come to those who wait. The Baseball Hall of Fame is certainly putting these credos to the test.

For a third year running, Mike Piazza has fallen short of the necessary amount of votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America to gain induction. And while he could easily use one of his gargantuan swings – the type that produced 427 career home runs – to simply bash down the door in Cooperstown himself and circumvent the whole voting process, in reality the great catcher will need to bide another 360 days or so to see if immortality awaits.

Growing by four in 2015, the Hall of Fame will welcome Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz during its induction ceremony on July 26. A deep and deserving class indeed, the foursome combined for 33 All-Star appearances, nine Cy Young Awards and six Silver Sluggers. They’ll also represent the largest group elected by the BBWAA in a single year since 1955 when Joe DiMaggio headlined along with Gabby Hartnett, Dazzy Vance and Ted Lyons. Yet, that unmistakable feeling that something is missing stands out like a batting order without a cleanup hitter.

That something is Mike Piazza.

Looking at the numbers and achievements without taking anything else into consideration, Piazza’s case for getting into the Hall might seem like a long shot. He never won an MVP or a Gold Glove. His 2,127 career hits fall well short of the magical No. 3,000 that seem to earn players an automatic bid. He also never won any postseason awards or championship rings during his 16-year career. In fact, he made only one appearance in the World Series. For any ordinary player, this body of work just wouldn’t cut the mustard.

But anyone familiar with Piazza knows he was no ordinary player. And few are more familiar with the catcher who started 10 All-Star Games than Tommy Lasorda. Asked by USA Today if Piazza belongs in the Hall, the longtime Dodgers manager answered, “Of course he does. How could you even ask that question?”

That’s what we’d like to know too, Tommy.

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Quite frankly, Piazza was one of the most-feared power hitters in all of baseball, not only within his own era but in all of history. Winning a Silver Slugger Award each year from 1993-2002, his 10 trophies are the most captured by any catcher in history and are only two behind Barry Bonds for most all time. Piazza also finished as the runner-up in MVP voting twice (1996, 1997) and cracked the top 10 on seven occasions.

In addition, not taking into consideration the fact that he spent 1,602 of his 1,912 career regular-season games as a starter squatting behind the plate would be pure blasphemy. Despite the rigors of the position chipping away at Piazza’s health one foul tip at a time, he still managed to hold a .308 career batting line while hitting 69 home runs after his 35th birthday.

Compared to those who are considered the best catchers in baseball history – the ones currently occupying space in the Hall of Fame – Piazza more than holds his own. His home runs rank first. His batting average is third behind Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey. His RBI total (1,335) also ranks third following Yogi Berra (1,430) and Johnny Bench (1,376), even though each had nearly 1,000 more at-bats than Piazza. He and Bench are the only catchers to ever record multiple seasons with more than 40 home runs. Piazza is also the only full-time backstop with 200 hits in a season, doing so with Los Angeles in 1997.

Like a gray cloud that you just can’t shake, Piazza’s perceived shortcomings while playing the field continue to dampen his chances at induction. Detractors point to his unflattering 23 percent career success rate throwing out base stealers and his 102 passed balls. Are these deficiencies really enough to cost arguably the best-hitting catcher of all time a spot in the Hall?

Piazza’s former manager with the Mets, Bobby Valentine, doesn’t think so. “He wasn’t that bad,” Valentine said to The Boston Globe in 2013. “I never remember him dropping a ball. He could really catch. His throwing was erratic but he was a smart guy, so pitchers couldn’t complain about what he was doing back there before they threw a pitch. I know he helped guys along.”

Beyond the statistics, Piazza is linked to some of the most iconic moments in the history of the game – snapshots in time that justify preservation in Cooperstown by themselves. In 1996, he caught Hideo Nomo’s no-hitter, the only one to be recorded at Colorado’s Coors Field. With the Mets en route to the Subway Series in 2000, Piazza helped the team erase a seven-run deficit against the Braves on June 30, cranking a three-run homer as part of a 10-run eighth inning in New York’s improbable 11-8 victory. The next season, in baseball’s first return to action in New York City following the 9/11 attacks, Piazza delivered his defining moment when he smacked a go-ahead two-run homer, again against Atlanta and again in the eighth inning, this time lifting the Mets to an emotional 3-2 win.

Even if some of us are in a perpetual state of “SMH” over Piazza’s Hall of Fame snub, the one person you won’t hear complaining about having to wait another year is Piazza. “I’m very proud of my career,” the 1993 Rookie of the Year said to MLB.com. “Obviously, I’ll put my body of work up against anybody. But you know what? I truly feel that the process is a beautiful thing. I can only do like an artist: ‘Here’s my work, my canvas.’ It’s out of my hands.”

Perhaps the wait will be coming to an end sooner rather than later. Since his name first appeared on the ballot in 2012, Piazza has seen his percentage of the vote increase from 57.8, to 62.2, to 69.9 this past year, putting him on the projected path to the required 75 percent for induction by 2016. To some, that honor will still be three years overdue. Thankfully, Piazza happens to be more patient than the rest of us.

Dave Vander Wende is a staff writer at Panini America. Follow him on Twitter at @alphavw

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